After four years at the wheel, the Trump administration came closer to taking down the Environmental Protection Agency than many employees thought was possible.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump said he wanted to dismantle the agency — responsible for reining in pollution in the US for the last 50 years — into “little tidbits.” As president, he boasted about gutting dozens of the EPA’s “job-killing” environmental rules governing clean air, climate, water, and toxic waste. His political appointees sidelined EPA scientists and took marching orders from big polluters. Climate change, once an agency priority, was erased from its website.
“I had never experienced an attack like that,” Gary Morton, who worked at the EPA for 26 years before retiring in October 2019, told BuzzFeed News. “We’re supposed to protect human health and the environment. But, through his dismantling the existing framework of environmental protection, we were no longer doing that.”
Now, President Joe Biden is aiming to tackle the climate crisis and environmental justice with the most ambitious plan ever enacted in the US. To do that, he’ll need the EPA.
But the sobering reality is that the EPA in 2021 is an agency in crisis, according to interviews with activists, academics, and more than a dozen current and former employees. More than 800 staffers left the agency under Trump, many of whom felt that they could no longer do their jobs holding polluters accountable and protecting public health. Morale among those who stayed is at a record low, with many staffers exhausted after four years of being Trump’s punching bag. And distrust is rampant as employees are forced to continue working alongside managers who caved to the Trump administration’s flagrant disregard of science.
As much as employees are excited to jump on Biden’s to-do list and are rooting for his EPA chief nominee, Michael Regan, they say they can’t move at the breakneck pace the new administration wants unless there is accountability for the past four years.
“How do you build trust with people who basically have been traumatized?” said Joyce Howell, an EPA attorney and union leader in Philadelphia. “I think it’s going to be really difficult.”
“It was an all-out assault.”
Trump visited the EPA headquarters, located across the street from his Washington, DC, hotel, only once as president.
On the afternoon of March 28, 2017, he took a seat in front of a row of coal miners flanked by EPA head Scott Pruitt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The president then signed an executive order aimed at unraveling Obama’s climate legacy, including undoing the Clean Power Plan. Robert Murray, then the CEO of the coal giant Murray Energy, had a front-row seat.
“You know what it says, right?” Trump asked the coal miners. “You’re going back to work.”
What Trump didn’t mention was how the rule for curbing power plant pollution was crafted with public health in mind. According to the EPA’s own analysis, the rule would have prevented 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, and 90,000 asthma attacks every year it was in effect.
EPA staffers had only just learned of the event, after receiving an email from Pruitt’s chief of staff with the subject line: “Our Big Day Today.”
“All of us watched it on closed-circuit TV,” Elizabeth Southerland, EPA’s former water chief, told BuzzFeed News. “It was basically just a slap in the face.”
This was the Trump playbook for the EPA on display for the first time. It soon became commonplace for Pruitt and his successor, Andrew Wheeler, to make sweeping changes favoring polluters — framed as increasing efficiency, transparency, or boosting the economy — that shut out and undercut staff experts, many of whom had worked at the agency for decades.
When Pruitt first proposed a “Red Team/Blue Team” public debate on climate change, his staff hid the involvement of prominent science deniers from the press. And between spring 2016 and spring 2018, the EPA quietly deleted at least 1,304 references to climate change (about 61% of references tracked) across the agency website, according to monitoring by a research group called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.
“I was part of a climate change work group, and they just stopped scheduling meetings,” Howell told BuzzFeed News. “Nobody said anything. It just — poof — went into the air. It just didn’t exist anymore.”
And while Pruitt’s moves on climate change got the most attention, he also hampered other parts of the agency that were working on public health.
Southerland’s team had finalized the first national permit limits on toxic metals and other harmful pollutants in wastewater coming from coal-fired power plants. Pruitt announced he was reconsidering the rule in a press release before telling her. After 33 years at the EPA, Southerland left in August 2017.
“It wasn’t just climate change these guys went after,” she said. “It was an all-out assault, across the board, on all statutes.”
The crackdown on the agency’s own experts, often in favor of corporate and political interests, was unnerving. Pruitt met with industry representatives 25 times as often as he did with environmentalists during his first seven months in office, according to a Reuters review of his calendar. He encouraged oil executives to apply for top positions at the EPA and illegally changed who could serve as the agency’s science advisers, stacking committees with scientists who had ties to the fossil fuel and chemical industries.
Political appointees “came in and created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear over the employees,” said Morton, who worked as an enforcement officer.
Perhaps Pruitt’s most blatant attack on science occurred at an event on April 24, 2018, that was closed to the press. That’s when he shared a proposal to stop the EPA from relying on what he called “secret science,” effectively blocking the use of many public health studies, based on a plan first designed by tobacco industry consultants in the 1990s.
The rule’s point of contact was listed as Tom Sinks, then the director of the Office of the Science Advisor. But he knew nothing about it.
“I had never seen a draft of the rule until it was released to the public,” Sinks, who left the agency in 2020, told BuzzFeed News. Sinks and others within the agency saw Pruitt’s move as a clear attempt to block science-based decisions while encouraging conspiracies among deniers.
“The only secret about the ‘secret science’ rule was that the rule was drafted behind closed doors by individuals who were never named,” Sinks said.
Pruitt didn’t stay at the EPA long, resigning in July 2018 amid a flurry of ethics scandals. His deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist, took over for the duration of Trump’s presidency.
Staffers told BuzzFeed News that while Wheeler more often flew under the radar, many of the changes that were most damaging to the agency were implemented under his watch.
In one of his early actions, Pruitt seized authority from regional offices working on toxic waste cleanup at Superfund sites. Any decisions about sites with cleanup costs estimated at $50 million or more had to be approved by the agency chief.
But it was only after Wheeler began sidelining career experts that Jim Woolford, then the director of EPA’s Superfund remedial program, said he really felt “marginalized by the political leadership and truly disrespected.”
“I was told on two to three different occasions that my input was not welcome,” said Woolford, who retired in 2020 after spending 34 years at the agency. “I reached the decision that it was too stressful for me to stay, and I just decided to retire.”
Similarly, enforcement officers were told they needed permission from the administrator office to issue certain information requests to companies, a critical tool for prying data loose from polluters.
The EPA policies previously focused on “protection and prevention,” according to Morton. But under Trump, officials removed the prevention measure, Morton explained. “So now companies no longer had to take preventive measures to ensure a spill didn’t occur; they just had to worry about cleaning it up afterwards.”
EPA staffers agreed the biggest damage Wheeler did to the agency was pushing through drastic changes thwarting its oversight of pollution. When the pandemic first hit, he took the controversial step of effectively pausing enforcement. Some states followed suit, and pollution increased in the months afterwards. And his staff finalized dozens of rollbacks first set into motion by Pruitt’s team, including replacing the Clean Power Plan and lowering fuel efficiency targets for cars. Even after Biden won the 2020 presidential election, Wheeler continued to push new rules that would obstruct the agency’s ability to curb air and climate emissions.
“We still have an administration doing everything in its power before the 20th to get rules like the [‘secret science’ rule] across the finish line,” a senior Biden transition official told reporters on Jan. 5. “And they are not doing it for any other reason than to make it more difficult for the next administration.”
“The agency has been decimated.”
To press the reset button on the EPA, the Biden administration has already identified 48 Trump-era regulations to review and possibly undo, recruiting agency veterans to drive an aggressive climate agenda.
And he’s tapped Regan, who has a proven record on environmental justice, to lead the agency. If confirmed, Regan, an EPA alum who most recently served as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, would be the first Black man to be administrator.
“This administration’s priorities for environmental protection are clear,” Regan said in the opening remarks of his confirmation hearing before Congress last week. “We will restore the roles of science and transparency at EPA and support the talented, dedicated career officials. We will move with a sense of urgency on climate change. We will stand up for environmental justice and equity.”
But staffers and members of Congress are skeptical he can do that without first surveying and addressing the wreckage at the agency.
“You will be coming into an agency that in my view is more or less captured by the fossil fuel industry,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said at the hearing.
“It left a trail of damage to the institution,” Whitehouse continued. “It left a trail of conflicts of interest, particularly on the scientific advisory groups. It left a trail of rulemakings thrown out for pretty patent violations of administrative law. It left a trail of FOIA failures and [information requests] unanswered. And I suspect you’ll find a good deal more as people come forward and are prepared to describe things that took place in the previous administration and maybe even some who couldn’t bear it and left and might very well come back with some stories.”
One big hurdle will be staffing. Even before Trump took office, the agency had struggled to maintain its workforce. Between January 2017 and January 2021, the agency lost 816 employees, according to the EPA.
“There have been a lot of long term problems at EPA — it was underfunded, under-resourced, and [had] staffing issues,” said Marianne Sullivan, an associate professor at William Paterson University and a volunteer researcher tracking the EPA for EDGI. “The Trump administration exacerbated a lot of preexisting problems.”
“Job number one” needs to be hiring, Woolford said. “They really have their job cut out for them because the agency has been decimated just by the loss of career staff, loss of institutional knowledge, the loss of programmatic knowledge.”
Another challenge will be boosting morale. People are “rattled” and “shocked” about “what they could not do or say under the past administration,” said Undine Kipka, an environmental engineer with the EPA and a union representative. “It’s going to take a lot to get back from that, but we just have to. We don’t have another choice if we want to fulfill the mission of the agency.”
To do that, the EPA’s new leadership needs to recommit to the agency’s central mission to protect clean air and water. According to an analysis by the watchdog Environmental Integrity Project, EPA inspections and evaluations dropped every year Trump was in office, and they were all below the levels previously reported over the past 20 years. The Trump administration also closed fewer civil cases and opened fewer new ones; it also charged fewer polluters in criminal cases, compared to each term of the Obama administration.
But holding oil and gas companies, power plants, and industrial farms accountable for their actions isn’t enough, staffers say. They want the agency to hold itself accountable for the past four years too.
“There’s not a lot of trust in the middle management group that has colluded with the old administration,” Nicole Cantello, an EPA lawyer and union leader in Chicago, told BuzzFeed News. “I think that a real issue [is] where or not the Biden administration is going to be able to break through this group of folks who implemented the Trump administration’s agenda pretty successfully and muzzled the rank and file.”
To build trust with staffers, the EPA may need to follow in the footsteps of Biden’s defense secretary and clean house of “those that are true Trump loyalists who don’t want to do anything that is really going to promote climate change,” said Christine Todd Whitman, EPA chief during the Bush administration.
The EPA did not respond directly to questions from BuzzFeed News about hiring plans, morale, and trust issues. “EPA has a workforce second to none in terms of commitment, experience, expertise and technical ability across a range of disciplines,” agency spokesperson Nick Conger told BuzzFeed News in an email. “The agency’s new leadership is committed to supporting a diverse and talented EPA as we move forward to fulfill the Biden-Harris Administration’s priorities.”
Conger also mentioned that officials at the agency were reviewing a sweep of Trump-era rules and policies and “will consider modifying or revoking those that are not consistent with President Biden’s goals.” Most, if not all, of the previous administration’s rules are tied up in litigation, and the courts have rejected some of the environmental rules passed under Trump.
On Jan. 19, Trump’s last full day in office, the DC Circuit Court struck down the power plant replacement rule, leaving a clear route for Biden’s EPA to craft a new rule to cut climate emissions from power plants. Then, on Feb. 1, the Montana District Court struck down Trump’s “secret science” rule after multiple environmental groups filed lawsuits.
For the rest of the Trump rules still hanging in litigation, agency officials have other options to blunt their effects, said Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. But if and when more Trump-era rules are scrapped, it will likely take the agency years to pass new ones.
Speaking before Congress, Regan pledged to do a damage assessment of the last four years once he was confirmed.
“There are lots of staff at EPA right now doing a reevaluation of a ton of rules and activities that may or may not have been done in a transparent manner or leveraged science in the way that we’d like. So we’re going to correct that,” Regan said.
But he also said his biggest challenge was time.
“We’re going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he added. As of Wednesday, there was no date for Regan’s confirmation vote. ●
Correction: If confirmed, Michael Regan will be the first Black man to head up the EPA. A previous version of the story misstated that he would be the first Black administrator.